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Steve And Rondi Hang With William And Kate

Steve Ruchefsky and Rondi Charleston

When Prince William and Kate — er, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge — attended last night’s black-tie fundraiser for the University of St. Andrews (their 600-year-old alma mater), Westporters Steve Ruchefsky and Rondi Charleston were in the house.

The house, of course, was the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Steve and Rondi scored their seats — 2 tables away from Will and Kate, in the Temple of Dendur — because a fellow board member of Steve’s company, Kite Pharma, is a St. Andrews alum.

The prince gave a lovely speech, Rondi says, and Renee Fleming sang. Seth Meyers spoke, and was quite funny.

So did Steve and Rondi get to chat with the royals?

Unfortunately, no. Rondi reports there was a strict “no schmoozing” protocol.

Fie!

Prince William, last night at the Met.

Prince William, last night at the Met.

Steve Baumann’s New “Discovery”

If you grew up around here, your parents probably took you to the Discovery Museum and Planetarium. You might also have gone on a field trip with your school or Scout troop.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember when the Bridgeport institution — just down Park Avenue from Sacred Heart University — was called the Museum of Arts, Science and Industry.

Steve Baumann recalls all that. Now — after a career spent leading and invigorating children’s science museums from coast to coast (Liberty in New Jersey, Franklin in Philadelphia, Kidspace in Pasadena) — Baumann has returned to the place where his interest in education and kids began.

Steve Baumann

Steve Baumann

The new executive director of the Discovery Museum grew up in Westport. One of Staples’ all-time best athletes, he starred in soccer, basketball and baseball. After earning soccer All-America honors at the University of Pennsylvania, playing professionally in the North American Soccer League, earning a master’s in science education at the University of Virginia, then teaching and coaching at the high school and college levels, Baumann embarked on his museum career.

His new job may pose one of his toughest challenges ever.

Children’s museums have changed dramatically since Baumann’s youth. They’ve even changed since kids started using laptops and tablets, just a few years ago.

It’s no longer enough to ask a child to push an exhibit button, watch water flow over a dam, and call it education about hydro-power. Youngsters today have so many more stimuli in their lives — with access to interactive media everywhere they turn — that museum officials must work much harder at engagement.

But the payoff is great. Baumann is an enthusiastic ambassador for the idea that once children are engaged, they nurture their creativity. They explore the world around, and find — hopefully — a lifelong passion for nature, physics, engineering, architecture, whatever.

That’s called “discovery.” And that’s why the Discovery Museum is a perfect fit for the new director.

There is plenty for kids to see at the Discovery Museum. Steve Baumann's challenge is to get them even more engaged.

There is plenty for kids to see at the Discovery Museum. Steve Baumann’s challenge is to get them even more involved.

Last week, Baumann took me on a tour of his new digs. In some places the 50-year-old museum showed its age. In others it was fresh, vibrant and resonant.

It was the same with the exhibits. As one of only 43 Challenger Learning Centers in the country, the Discovery Museum’s new state-of-the-art facility offers kids a chance to become “astronauts” and “engineers” as they solve real-world problems on a simulated flight to Mars.

But the “spaceship” needs an overhaul. And the Challenger center itself relies heavily on computers and monitors, which kids can find anywhere.

It’s the same with “Springs, Sprockets and Pulleys.” The very cool art exhibit features Steve Gerberich’s art made from  old machine parts, kitchen utensils, furniture scraps, lighting fixtures, medical supplies and toys. Sculptures move, change forms, even make music.

But, Baumann points out, that’s all they do. He’d like to see a section of the room filled with random stuff scattered about. After viewing Gerberich’s creations, youngsters could have the chance to make their own.

As they do, educators would chat with the kids about the process: What would they like to make? How could they do it? What else would they do with the materials at hand? What else do they wish they’d have?

Steve Baumann at the "Sprockets" exhibit. He wants to take the engagement process a few steps further.

Steve Baumann at the “Sprockets” exhibit. He wants to take the engagement process a few steps further.

“That’s really what education is about,” Baumann says. “It’s not just curating an exhibit. It’s bringing those exhibits into the 21st century, so kids are motivated to explore, investigate, and find out that science and creativity are fun.”

Similarly, he points to the Discovery Museum’s well-equipped classrooms. “These are great,” he notes. “But when kids come on a field trip, and they’re all excited to be here, the first thing they see shouldn’t be another classroom.”

Too many museum directors, he says, are not schooled in pedagogy. His goal is to inspire kids to have “a love of learning how to learn.” He loves watching youngsters struggle to find solutions — and smile as they do it.

He believes the museum has an opportunity to reinvent itself, at a time when public interest in science education is high. The opening 2 years ago of the adjacent Adventure Park was a great step toward engaging people both in the city of Bridgeport, and the suburbs around it.

Discovering science and more, at the Discovery Museum.

Discovering science and more, at the Discovery Museum.

Just as the wildly popular ropes course challenges children (and older folks) to solve problems, so will the reimagined Discovery Museum inspire them to think about the world in new and different ways.

Baumann never wants to stop learning himself. He’d enjoy hearing innovative ideas about the museum from anyone — youngsters, parents, benefactors, corporations, folks who (like him) remember it fondly from their long-ago youth.

You can email him: baumann@discoverymuseum.org.

Or — better yet — stop by the Discovery Museum, and see it for yourself.

Noting Notable Trees

Westport has 39 notable trees. They include maples, chestnuts, beeches, tulips, spruces, oaks and more.

That’s not my statistic. It’s not tree warden Bruce Lindsay’s.

It’s the number listed on the Notable Trees Project website. Established in 1985 , it’s a volunteer effort sponsored by the Connecticut Botanical Society, Connecticut College Arboretum and Connecticut Urban Forest Council.

A computer database maintained at the Arboretum includes records of 3362 individual trees in the state: size, location, ownership and condition. You can search by scientific name, common name, species or town.

But if you want to see those notable trees, you’re on your own. Exact locations are not given (something about permission from private owners).

This Main Street tree is pretty notable.

This Main Street tree is pretty notable.

One intriguing link on the site lists “Charter Oak Descendants.” Westport is not there.

Supposedly, a seedling from Connecticut’s most famous tree grew in the courtyard of Staples High School, when it was built on North Avenue in 1958. No one remembers exactly where, though. Apparently it was destroyed in the modernization project of 1978 — or the most recent one, a decade ago.

The website is an interesting project. Let’s hope — after so much Bunyanesque action here — that all 39 “notable trees” still stand.

(Hat tip to Gloria Gouveia)

 

From Brooklyn To Westport, With Love

Last spring, Nico Eisenberger’s 3-year-old daughter announced during breakfast, “I’m going outside.” She got up from the table, and strolled outside to play. Neither he nor his wife, Robin Bates, worried.

Much as they loved Brooklyn — where they lived until last December — that could never have happened there, he says.

Nico, Robin and their 3 young daughters have been Westporters less than a year. But they leaped into local life. They’ve become active in the Greens Farms Congregational Church, marched in the Memorial Day parade, hosted neighborhood parties.

And — as a tour of their lovingly restored 1903 home shows — they hope to keep Westport’s heritage alive.

Nico Eisenberger (3rd from left) and his wife Robin Bates (holding child) accept a Westport Historical Society plaque designating their house as dating to 1903 from Bob Weingarten. At the ceremony were the couple's 3 children, and Peter Jennings (far left), an 11th-generation Westporter and descendant of original owner Henry Jennings. (Photo/Dave Matlow, courtesy of WestportNow)

Nico Eisenberger (3rd from left) and his wife Robin Bates (holding child) accept a Westport Historical Society plaque designating their house as dating to 1903 from Bob Weingarten. At the ceremony were the couple’s 3 children, and Peter Jennings (far left), an 11th-generation Westporter and descendant of original owner Henry Jennings. (Photo/Dave Matlow, courtesy of WestportNow)

Nico — who works in the clean energy field — grew up in Somerset County, New Jersey. Robin — a digital marketer — is from Toronto. They rented in Park Slope for 2 years, then bought a beautiful brownstone with a hot tub on the roof.

But as their girls grew — they’re now 8, 7 and 4 — the family needed more room. Nico and Robin searched all around the tri-state area. They were ready to buy a great 6-acre place in Bedford, New York, but realized they would miss not being near water.

A Brooklyn neighbor suggested Westport. They saw a number of houses here, but none stood out. As they were ready to leave, their realtor Janet Anderson suggested a house on the corner of Beachside Avenue and Beachside Commons.

It was love at first sight.

The open floor plan, light, and proximity to Burying Hill Beach and the Green’s Farms train station appealed to them. “Everything just felt right,” Nico says.

The wide veranda offers fantastic views.

The wide veranda offers fantastic views.

The house originally stood on 20 acres. It was built by Henry A. Jennings, and passed through only 2 other owners. There was horror fiction writer Peter Straub, then Roy and Laurie Witkin. That couple “saw in us an echo of who they were when they moved in 25 years ago,” Nico says.

The  Witkins — who have remained friendly with the new owners — introduced Nico and Robin to neighbors on tight-knit Beachside Commons.

Children wander in and out of each other’s homes, and chatter together at the communal bus stop. The parents have a “proverbial ‘borrowing butter’ relationship,” Nico says.

The 1st year has been all Nico and Robin expected — and more. He’s coached his girls in soccer and softball. They’ve rowed, sailed and kayaked on nearby New Creek. They look forward to watching their oldest perform in “The Nutcracker” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Nico Eisenberger stands in the open, airy front of the house.

Nico Eisenberger stands in the open, airy front of the house.

“Westport is close enough to the city that people’s expectations of culture are rooted there,” Nico says.

“But it’s far enough away that it’s not just a bedroom community. People have a strong sense of self. They want to make this place great.”

One way is through environmental awareness. Soon after they moved here, Earthplace hosted an informational event about solar panels and thermal imaging.

“It was a Wednesday night in mid-winter, and 25 people were there!” Nico remembers. “There were energy efficiency vendors, and wine and food. That really said something about Westport.”

Socially, Nico says, he and Robin have found friends through their children’s schools, coaching, and by attending events. They’ve made it their mission to go places: the Westport Arts Center, Historical Society, anything that piques their interest.

On the 4th of July they wandered over to a Cedar Point Yacht Club party. They felt very welcomed — and were immediately offered a spot on a race crew.

The rear of the house, off Beachside Avenue.

The rear of the house, off Beachside Avenue.

“We love the creative, eclectic, open spirit” of Westport, Nico says. “There are parks, restaurants, excellent schools — and a river runs through it.”

One downside: downtown. “On the surface it’s charming and compact,” he says. “But I haven’t figured out what to do there.” He and Robin have gone to meetings, providing input about the future of downtown.

Closer to home, they’ve spent a year on their historic home. The Jennings family has spent 11 generations in Westport, and they are treating Henry Jennings’ home with the love it deserves.

Nico Eisenberger and Robin Bates have retained many of the original fixtures.

Nico Eisenberger and Robin Bates have retained many of the original fixtures.

They’ve restored parts of the house — the sweeping veranda and old-fashioned basement — while retaining many aspects that give it so much charm. “We are just stewards of this house,” Nico says. “It is our job to pass it on.”

Many longtime Westporters — including yours truly — regularly rail at the teardown mentality of our town.

Nico and Robin are new Westporters. But they have a different view.

“Westport has done a better job than other communities of not succumbing to McMansions everywhere,” Nico says.

“There’s good housing stock here. People care about this place.”

And — with newcomers like Nico Eisenberger and Robin Bates — it seems our future is in very good, loving hands.

 

 

Marion Howard: Not In My (Septic) Back Yard

On Wednesday morning — despite pleas to the contrary — the board of selectmen approved a sewer project.

Marion Howard is not pleased.

She lives on Bulkley Road North. About 15 years ago, she says, a resident on the east (Sasco Creek) side of the street circulated a petition. It asked the town to extend sewers north from Old Road, to include parts of Bulkley. At the time, 50 percent of the homeowners needed to sign such a petition for it to be considered.

Since then, Marion says, the minimum requirement was raised to 75%. The reason, she explains, is recognition that sewer projects require homeowners to pay assessments.

Some Bulkley Avenue North homeowners want sewers. Others do not.

Some Bulkley Avenue North homeowners want sewers. Others do not. (Photo/Google Maps)

Marion claims that since the original petition was submitted there have been substantive changes to the proposed project, adding other streets and locations. However, Marion says, the petition was grandfathered in at 50% of homeowners, not the current 75%  — and it included all those who had previously signed. However, she says, many properties changed hands in the ensuing 15 years.

Marion says that when she bought her home — after the original petition was circulated — she was not told that a potential assessment was in progress. She also says the town did not poll existing homeowners, which was one reason the project was stopped a year ago.

For homeowners like her, who attended a previous assessment meeting, the estimate per family was placed at approximately $10,000-15,000, she says. On Tuesday — the day before yesterday’s meeting — she received a letter putting the estimate per property at $17,166. She fears the cost estimate could balloon even higher.

She adds that a sewer is “not even necessary” for her property. Her septic system was built for a 5-bedroom home, but there are only 3 occupants. (The request for a sewer, she says, came about because the lower elevation on the east side of Bulkley makes those homes more vulnerable to septic issues.)

And she wonders how many other such petitions or potential assessments are also in the works.

 

A New Frontier In Phone Service

Last Friday night, Frontier took over Connecticut telephone service from AT&T.

Many customers were unsure what that would mean. They found out quickly.

Karl Decker — an avid “06880” reader, and former English instructor at Staples — lost internet service until 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He was not the only one.

ATT FrontierFrom another phone — and after countless renditions of recorded “We are aware…thank you for your patience” messages – he managed to reach Frontier. A techie described what was happening as “all chaos.” He added, “thousands are offline.”

On Sunday, Karl was in Westport (Country Curtains had a 15%-off sale). The store still had no internet. Folks from Greenwich said they were still out too — along with everyone else they knew.

At noon on Monday, staffers at the Monroe Y noted that many friends remained without service.

“Is this news or what?” Karl asks. “When there’s an electric failure, it’s ll over the papers!”

Hear hear!

We’re #111!

Forbes has released its annual list of America’s most expensive zip codes.

94027 — Atherton, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley — is the priciest place in the nation. The median cost of 24 homes listed for sale last summer was a cool $9.03 million.

New York is the state with the most expensive zip codes: 6 of the top 10. 11962 — Sagaponack, in Southampton — is #2, followed by 3 in Manhattan.

This house was listed at $1,849,000 -- just about the median price in Westport, but more than $7 million below the median in Atherton, California.

This house was listed at $1,849,000. That’s very near the median price in Westport, but more than $7 million below Atherton, California.

Connecticut does not even crack the top 50. Three Greenwich zip codes appear at #52, 56 and 69. 06880 is our state’s 7th most expensive zip code, and we’re only #111 in the nation. Our median home price is $1,897,892.

Weston’s 06883 is #330 ($1,111,516).

I can only imagine what the teardowns and new construction look like in 94027.

And how poorly the drivers of all those expensive cars park.

(Click on Forbes.com for the full 500 list.)

Addressing Sexual Assault, Westporters Create A National “Culture Of Respect”

A Columbia University undergraduate hauls a mattress around campus to protest the school’s lax handling of her sexual assault charge against a fellow student.

At Yale, fraternity members taunt advocates of a strong sexual assault policy: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

Nearly every day, it seems, there’s a new twist on an old story: sexual assaults by college students on classmates.

But despite all the talk — and countless task forces, reports, videos, workshops and whatnot — there has not been one national, coordinated, clear and comprehensive place to gather facts, offer resources and provide help to everyone affected by college sexual assault: victims; their friends and parents; university administrators, professors and coaches.

Now there is. It’s called Culture of Respect — and the social norm-changing organization that launches officially tomorrow is spearheaded by a strong, committed group of Westporters.

Culture of Respect board members (from left) John and Sandi Fifield, and Anne Hardy.

Culture of Respect board members (from left) John and Sandi Fifield, and Anne Hardy.

John Fifield is an architect. His wife Sandi is a photographer. But they — and a corps of friends and strangers-who-soon-became-friends — quickly became experts on federal, state and local law; police and medical procedures; brain development, alcohol, fraternities, athletics, and politics as practiced at the national, state, local (and university) levels.

“We wanted to do something positive for young women on campuses,” John explains. “It didn’t take long to realize how much was lacking.”

They reached out to the best people they could find: legal experts, educators, folks at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Westporters opened doors for the Fifields, and the equally dedicated Anne Hardy. There were introductions to college presidents and deans. Leads to marketers, fundraisers, publicists. An invitation to a small roundtable discussion with Vice President Joe Biden.

All agreed on the need to provide one place where anyone could find information on what to do in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault; how to follow up; which prevention programs already work — even how parents and other adults can talk to young women (and men) about the issue.

And it’s all free.

So was the website design. Gina Nieves of MarkNet built it all, pro bono.

The Culture of Respect home page.

The Culture of Respect home page.

Through it all, the Culture of Respect organizers kept their focus on “culture.”

“We go beyond what happens in one relationship,” Sandi says. “This is about changing a culture. It includes all students, and all adults in a college. It speaks to parents of boys and young men too.”

Culture of Respect is not about looking backward or pointing blame, Anne says. The emphasis is on moving forward.

That’s not easy. Every college is different. But they’ve created a flexible framework. Schools as diverse as Dartmouth, Brigham Young, the University of Florida, Prairie View A&M and Kalamazoo Valley Community College can find something there that will work for them.

Users find an impressive array of information. One section offers help and resources for victims of sexual assault, friends and parents. Another is aimed at college administrators, in the form of vast research and over a dozen successful programs already in place.

A section on “activism tools” provides links to powerful videos. Here’s one example, from the University of Arizona:

Amazingly, none of the data and resources has been available in one place before. It’s a fantastic, surprising — and, unfortunately, eye-opening — website. It’s stunning in its depth, powerful in its breadth, and inspiring in its potential for a true cultural shift.

College sexual assault is a national problem. Today, the best tools to fight it are offered from right here in Westport, by a passionate, well-organized group of neighbors. They believe every college and university in America can must create a true “culture of respect.”

(For more information, and to see the website, click on www.cultureofrespect.org.)

 

Whetting Your Appetite For Restaurant Week

Westport’s Restaurant Week is in full swing. It runs now through Sunday, October 19. (Yeah, it’s more than a week. Too many choices!)

If you need a little push — or an idea where to go — check out this video. It features the 27 restaurants, and 2 cocktail bars, that are participating.

If you’re an “06880” reader who no longer lives here, you might like to watch too. You’ll see some places you’ve only read about, along with a couple of old favorites.

Mangia!

Mia Gentile Gets Into Kinky Boots

Mia Gentile — the 2007 Staples grad who rocketed to internet fame with a fantastic “Stanley Steemer” video, and most recently starred in “Forbidden Broadway” — is joining the cast of “Kinky Boots.”

She’ll be the ensemble worker with the awesome mullet. She’ll also understudy the role of Lauren.

We can’t show video from Broadway. Below is the next best thing: a clip of Mia’s fantastic performance in Staples Players’ 2005 production of “Garden of Eden.”

In it, Mia plays Eve. Later this month, she’ll be on stage with a drag queen.

Hey, that’s show biz.